Will EUROCONTROL’s New DG Rebuild an Old Dream?

On 11-01-2013, in ATC world, by steve

Frank Brenner, EUROCONTROL’s new DG

Once upon a time, EUROCONTROL had been created to be the air navigation service provider for Europe. Operating a limited number of air traffic control centers, a research institute and a training facility, it would have been the key to an efficient set up not unlike what we find in the United States.

Unfortunately, before the concept could be fully implemented, European States decided that such a pan-European service was not to their liking and they went for a EUROCONTROL that ended up having responsibility for only a relatively small chunk of airspace (although it is one of the busiest) and all later attempts to go further in the original direction were repulsed. Just think of CEATS…

A few functions were allowed to be under the EUROCONTROL umbrella. The Integrated Initial Flight Plan Processing System and the Central Executive Unit (the flow management folks) escaped the State surgeons’ knife and went on to become real success stories. They were later joined by the European AIS Data Base and of course the Central Route Charges Office is also something Europe could no longer exist without.

But air traffic control remained hopelessly fragmented and the costs were much higher than those in the US while the whole operation was a good deal less efficient. A series of projects entailed, each with lofty ideas about repairing European ATM but they all failed due to the same elementary forces that had afflicted the EUROCONTROL dream… The inertia and parochial thinking of European States, who were mainly interested in maintaining the status quo. Change came only where it was really no longer possible to keep things as they were.

Seeing that Europe as a whole was unable to reform its ATM, the European Commission came with a new idea. Let’s divide Europe into 2-3 blocks of airspace cut out to reflect the main traffic patterns and then have States optimize their services inside these blocks. So the FAB (Functional Airspace Block) idea was born. Of course Europe being Europe, instead of 2 or 3 FABs, 9 (NINE!!!) were created reflecting political wishes rather than the needs of air traffic patterns.

Guess what was discovered next? That 5 or 6 European States have roughly the same difficulty in agreeing anything as 20 or 39 do. The whole idea of FABs is fragmentation on a different scale but with 9 of the animals working away practically independently, a recipe for failure was clearly on the table. 4 December 2012 was the date when the FABs should have been operational… The date came and went and the FABs were there in name only to the dismay of the European Commission and the airlines who gave voice to their disappointment in a letter with unusually hard words.

Now EUROCONTROL has a new director.

Frank Brenner, a former VP of the Performance Review Commission, seems to be the bearer of something new… Something that might, one day, restore things to where they should have been decades ago but were always torpedoed by the parochial thinkers.

Centralised services…

For decades, even the word “centralized” had been banned in European ATM circles and the best we could hope for was a cautious “harmonized” which actually meant everybody does what they want…

Not only is “centralized” now back in the vocabulary, it was transport commissioner Siim Kallas himself who had requested EUROCONTROL in December 2012 to figure out in more detail what the idea of centralized services actually meant. It is significant to note that finally it is not the FABs who are being asked to think about something (as had been the custom recently when people were not able to do anything on the European level). It is EUROCONTROL that must now do the thinking.

May be, just may be the coin has dropped and someone somewhere realized that the good old institution on the Rocket Street outside Brussels, so often the target of jokes and mockery, is, after all, the only true ATM center of expertise in Europe.

Trained as I am to always look for the catch in everything I hear, my first order of the day when coming face to face with the idea of centralized services was to check whether the scope included also… well, you know… the thing air traffic controllers do when they work the microphone.

Following Mr. Kallas’ instigation, EUROCONTROL had set up a project team to define a list of potential centralized services. Here is what they came up with:
• An air navigation service or related function
• A service exercised at central European/network level, bringing significant benefits in terms of cost-effectiveness and harmonization
• A service entrusted (management, responsibility and liability) to the Network Manager, while the technical set-up and operation are contracted to industry (ANSP/manufacturing industry) through competitive tenders as far as possible

It is the first item in the list that makes this thing so sweet! Air navigation service as a centralized service? Is that not how EUROCONTROL started in the first place??? But there is even more. The project team has also said that centralized services must:
• Contribute significantly to the performance targets of the Member States
• Support the implementation of SESAR developments on a central basis
• Support the implementation of SESAR developments to become pan-European services
• Support the unbundling of ancillary services
• Allow service providers/the ATM manufacturing industry to team up to provide such services outside national boundaries at a pan-European level
• Allow market mechanisms for the centralized services to be implemented following a tender process, i.e. competition for the market
• Allow performance-based contracts to be concluded between EUROCONTROL and the selected service providers

Mr. Brenner very correctly stresses in all communications that EUROCONTROL is not aiming to be the monopoly service provider as such. They would define what services to provide in a centralized way and then have organizations with the skills necessary bid for the privilege of providing the service for a defined length of time. EUROCONTROL would administer the contracts and oversee the smooth running of the whole setup.

But there are more revolutionary words where the above came from. What about this, also written by Mr. Brenner:

The contribution to the performance scheme is twofold. Firstly, centralized services as such will contribute significantly to achieving the performance scheme targets compared to the national service provision. Secondly, the market mechanisms can provide additional contributions to achieving these performance targets, compared to being operated in a perpetual monopoly.”

Obviously, one should not expect to see the core ATC services being relinquished by States any time soon or the FABs disappearing overnight. But the significance of the change of thinking embodied in the concept of centralized services and in particular the inclusion of air navigation services in the list is far greater than most people will realize on first hearing about this concept.

There is no reason why one controlled flight hour in the USA should cost half as much as it costs in Europe. There is no reason why ATM projects should fail. Just make sure this new thinking takes off as soon as possible and we are home free.

Mr. Brenner, the airspace users already owe you one!

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  1. Nosoc says:

    “… Secondly, the market mechanisms can provide additional contributions to achieving these performance targets, compared to being operated in a perpetual monopoly.”

    Seen the current European economic situation, do you really think market mechanisms are the way to go?

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